Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Church Must Become Authentically Relevant

I live in that region of the United States that has been dubbed the Bible belt. In the county in which I reside there are over 100 churches of various denominations and various sizes. Although all of them are part of the wider Christian tradition, which is unfortunate for it makes us somewhat monolithic in our religious understanding, this variety of places of Christian worship offers the seeker with a selection of Christian theological beliefs, church polity, types of worship, and choices of dress. You really can’t go wrong in finding a house of worship that fits what you want, unless of course you are not Christian. I am sure there are towns like this all over America.

Yet, despite the plethora of houses of worship in towns across this country, it seems to be that the church is becoming less relevant to the lives of people both within and outside the church. While many stay away from church for various reasons, many do cite the fact that the church is out of touch with their needs, that the church is too dogmatic and strict in its beliefs, and that for the most part it has sided with a particular political agenda. And many folks don’t understand why churches feel the need to subjugate women or ostracize people due to sexual orientation.

It is probably accurate to say that many folks stay away from church because they just don’t find it worthwhile, and thus they do find excuses to stay away. But the fact of the matter is that these accusations against the church, as well as plenty of others, are often valid.

Moreover, among the folks who faithfully attend church Sunday after Sunday hoping to hear a word from God, are those who leave the place of worship with a great measure of dissatisfaction. Part of this dissatisfaction has to do with the person who comes to worship, whose life is filled with distractions that draw their attention and energy from focusing on God in worship. But much of this disappointment happens because the church has waned in its relevancy to touch people’s lives and to translate the gospel for the needs of today’s world.

It is these people that find the church very ineffectual in its proclamation, hiding behind a spiritualism that is based on worship as entertainment and preaching as superficial. At church we are encouraged to allow our emotions to soak in the shallow songs that appear on the screen and the sermons that reinforce our beliefs, but do not challenge our status quo existence as people who choose comfort over vulnerability and prosperity over sacrifice.

But more tragically, these people are discouraged from asking serious questions about faith and about the issues we face in our world, or they are given pat answers to these questions. In fact, we are encouraged to shut down our minds in church, which leads me to believe that church is perhaps the most intellectually dishonest institution we can find. It is, as one of my kids said, “The place where you can get an easy “A”.

We cannot equate relevancy with emotional manipulation and easy “A” theology. Folks don’t want to come to church to have their emotions manipulated or to hear rehearsed answers to their questions. People who come to church come there to find meaning for their lives and relationships that are welcoming and embracing, not condescending. And while many churches may claim to be welcoming, the reality is that they are not welcoming those they judge as sinful.

Furthermore, people who come to church don’t seek sermons that are mundane repetitions of outdated theology or unsophisticated platitudes. They want to be challenged by the gospel and how to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship. They want to deal honestly with deep questions about God, humanity, and the issues we face in our world. They want to hear that the gospel can change the world, but not simply through getting people saved, which is far removed from the central message of Jesus. People want to hear, and they need to hear that Jesus’ message is not about heaven or hell, but about living justly and faithfully here in this life.

That being said, there is no doubt that there are faithful and relevant churches all across this nation and this world. Faithfulness and relevance, however, cannot be equated with size. How many members a church has or how many baptisms a church performs is not the measure of faithfulness. In fact, there are many small churches that are probably more faithful to the call of Jesus than those mega-churches who have gone into tremendous debt to build elaborate places of worship and family life centers, but only present a false sense of relevancy.

I think for the most part, the church, as an institution, remains a stagnant institution instead of a living dynamic community of disciples. In my view, it will take an awful lot of soul searching and questioning to peel back two millennia of institutional film that prevents us from being authentically relevant to the world.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Church is the Broken Body of Christ

How did a movement that began with a rugged band of first century Jewish peasants eventually become the largest institutional religion in the world? How did the followers of Jesus move from meeting in homes to building extravagant cathedrals, worship centers, and family life buildings? How did the preaching of the gospel move from being a prophetic ministry of calling people to faithful discipleship to being a multibillion dollar business that promises blessing, prosperity, and victory over our enemies? How did a once inclusive community that welcomed Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, become an exclusive institution that works at its best to shut people out? How did a people called to weep and mourn create an atmosphere of worship that entertains and manipulates the emotions but does not call us to follow Jesus? How did the broken body of Jesus become the instrument of religious power?

Perhaps the most famous metaphor to describe the church comes from the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ. Paul’s selection of this metaphor was not haphazard, for the sign and that which it signifies cannot be easily distinguished, as the image of the church as the body of Christ signifies that the church is indeed the incarnation of Jesus in the world. The church is the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to a world in need of prophetic voices, serving hands and feet, and hearts of compassion. Yet, we have forgotten that Jesus’ body was broken for us, and as such the body of Christ in the world today should also be broken.

Brokenness, like many other terms that fit within its semantic domain, conjures up images of weakness and failure, images that for some reason we have taken to be far from what it means to be followers of Jesus. For some odd reason Christians are particularly guilty of assuming that because they are Christian all things should work out for them. We pray to avoid struggle and pain, and in some sections of the church, we are told that if we have enough faith we can avoid these things and we can even become rich.

But as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? We must remember that Jesus, the one we are called to follow, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death. His life was not just a brief stopover on his way to heaven. He did not swoop in and swoop out human existence. His life was a vulnerable existence that ended in a miscarriage of justice.

Followers of Jesus must embrace brokenness as a faithful way of existing in the world both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ.
While Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who is all powerful, when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ life and tragic death. Moreover, by coupling the belief that God is all-powerful with the idea that we, as opposed to others, are the blessed and chosen people of God, we mock the cross of Jesus. Christians have no pride of place in God’s creation, for our redemption does not make us blameless, and our lack of evil and oppressive deeds does not mean we are innocent. And at no point in his life did Jesus ever suggest that we will be prosperous and secure if we only have faith in God.

Indeed, the church exists in the world as the suffering body of Christ that engages with the pains and struggles of those seeking hope, healing, redemption, and restoration. Jesus took on human brokenness in order to be intimate with those who struggled and suffered in this life. He did not separate himself from pain and brokenness, but he embraced it as a way of being intimate with those who suffer. His compassion was not a feeling of sympathy for the plight of the hurting, while he remained distant from their hurting. His compassion was the force that led him to be intimately bound to those who hurt.

If the church is ever to return to Jesus’ vision for his followers, then those who claim to be Christian must choose to take up the cross of Jesus by choosing to be broken. Becoming a Christian does not remove our connectedness to the rest of humanity. Rather following Jesus leads us to be more intimately connected to humanity, especially to humans who are broken. The body of Christ does not exist separate from the world, but in solidarity with the world as the broken body of Christ incarnate and suffering with the rest of humanity.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Would Jesus Do About Health Care?

One of the vocations for which Jesus is best known is being a healer. The Gospels narrate stories in which he makes the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. He heals some of dreaded diseases and he raises others from the dead. Yet, the healing narrative in Mark 5:21-43 strikes me as particularly interesting in the way it is told and for its implications for how we envision health care reform in this country.

In the hands of the author, the two stories of healing that we find in Mark 5:21-43 have become intertwined into one story. The story of Jairus, the Synagogue leader, and his very ill daughter brackets the story of an unknown woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Both stories involve females in need of healing. The number12 is important in both. Jesus’ touch plays a key role in each healing. And the theme of faith is vital to what takes place in each episode. The literary structure and details not only forces us to read the stories as one story, but leads us to see one story as having meaning for the other.

Yet, when we read the stories as one, we also come away with the idea that the two individuals that come to Jesus could not be more different. Jairus, whose name we know, is a male. The woman, who remains nameless, is a female. Jairus is a leader in the Synagogue, a man of great religious and political stature and influence. The unnamed woman is an outcast, who has been shunned by her community because of her disease. Jairus can come to Jesus expecting to seek healing for his daughter. The woman is disregarded by the crowd as she approaches Jesus from behind.

Perhaps one of the reasons these two stories are linked together is so that readers can face the reality that in our human existence all of us are vulnerable to sickness and death. Sickness and death are universal, and they have neither respect for people of importance nor sympathy for those who are poor. At some point in life everybody suffers pain and sickness, and therefore, at some point in our lives we will all seek healing.

The problem, however, is that many who seek healing will never receive the care and treatment they need because they cannot afford health care coverage. In our wealthy and technologically advanced country, millions of people will not receive the health care they need because they cannot pay for such care. Tens of thousands die each year for lack of health care, and thousands of others suffer in pain and sickness because they cannot meet the expense of medical care and treatment.

Politicians have debated this issue for some time now, and currently there are plans being put forth to reform our health care system and make quality care affordable for all. Yet, there are still those who argue that our health care system should remain as it is, market driven. There are still those who think that the free market is the best solution to our health care problem, for in their minds competition will produce an industry that will be beneficial to all. The discussions have been reduced to political and economic debates that treat those who need health care coverage as mere numbers.

Yet, the issue of providing health care to those who do not have access to such care because of the exorbitant costs is not a political or economic issue; it is a moral issue that calls us to re-envision how we see life and human dignity.

In a market driven system of health care, the unnamed woman would have perhaps gone untreated, but Jairus would have had the health care he needed for his daughter. After all, Jairus is a man of means. But the woman has no money left. Jesus, however, saw things differently. Jesus valued all human life as sacred to God, and he extended healing and wholeness to both the woman and Jairus’ daughter.

But in stopping to heal the unnamed woman instead of proceeding straightaway to Jairus’ house uninterrupted, Jesus also rebuked a system that offered preferential treatment for those like Jairus who have power, status, and money. He recognized the universality of pain and suffering, and thus he desired to heal both the woman and Jairus’ daughter. But he also knew the prejudices of societies that do not nurture and heal their most vulnerable members, and he stopped to affirm the value of someone who others perceived as an insignificant poor woman.

The test of faithfulness to Jesus is always in how we treat the vulnerable of society. If we are to bear authentic witness to Jesus as the healer, and to God as the giver of life, then we must embrace the value and dignity of all human beings, but especially the vulnerable of our world. In our American society, perhaps there is no greater population that is more vulnerable than those who do not have access to good and affordable health care.

It is time that Christians, and indeed people of all faiths, seriously consider this issue beyond the political battles and number crunching, to see the moral imperative of developing a system that offers to all the basic human right to quality and affordable health care.